We will push up the age of retirement, and I believe it should go to 70
I just don’t see why the taxpayer should be coughing up for state-sponsored cars, so that some people can feel superior about the way they get around
It must have been about six months ago that I was treated to a symbol of everything that was wrong with the wasteful and incompetent Labour government that has just been ejected from office. Indeed, it was a symbol of everything that has been wrong with British politics over the past decade. I came across this object in Derby Gate, Westminster, round about lunchtime – and I can still see it in my mind’s eye, stationed in the gloom not far from the Red Lion pub.
What was this monstrous sight? What was this thing that still, to this day, makes me shudder with rage? My friends, it was the rear end of Mr Keith Vaz MP. Not that I have anything in particular against Keith or any part of him. Indeed, I could not actually see his hindquarters but I could see where they were located – cupped, cosseted, cocooned on the velour upholstery of a government car – and for the life of me I couldn’t see why.
The car paused as it drew abreast and Vaz hauled down the window to hail me. Actually, I can’t be sure that it was Vaz who pressed the button, causing the window to slide silently south. It might have been him, or the driver, or the bodyguard. But at any rate the window went down and Vaz addressed me in the kindly tones of Louis XIV leaning from his carriage to comfort a poor peasant woman struggling along in the mud.
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“I say, Boris,” said Vaz, “do you want a lift?” I am sure he meant to be friendly, because, as I say, he and I have been perfectly cordial in our relations, even though he once produced a transcript of a conversation in which I had apparently told him to “—- off” about 24 times. “No, it’s OK, thanks, Keith,” I said, slapping the battered old handlebars of my machine. “I’ve got my bike.” And then, as an afterthought, I asked: “Where are you off to?” “Lancaster Gate!” said Mr Keith Vaz MP, as his limo swooshed off into the lunchtime traffic. And then I am afraid I saw red.
Lancaster Gate? Lancaster Gate, I could have pointed out – as the Chairman of Transport for London – is only four stops from Westminster. You take the Jubilee Line, change at Bond Street, and pow – you’re there. Why in the name of all that’s holy was Vaz being chauffeured from Westminster to Lancaster Gate?
Consider the total cost to the public purse of his car, his driver, his bodyguard, and compare it with the negligible charge that would have been made for one swipe of the Oyster card.
Consider the massacre Labour has made of the national finances, and then remember that by this stage Vaz wasn’t even a minister. He was just a chairman of a back-bench select committee. He didn’t face the slightest threat to his security, except possibly from people like me, and here he was cruising around London as though he was Charles blooming de Gaulle.
I neither know nor care who has succeeded Vaz as chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and the very fact that I don’t know confirms that he or she has no need either of a car or a driver or any other expensive flummery designed purely to gratify the ego of politicians.
David Cameron has made a good start in taking away some of these ministerial cars, but there is much further to go. We are going to take some very tough decisions in the next few years. We will push up the age of retirement, and I believe it should go to 70, rather than 68, and we will need to do it long before the current target of 2046. We must find ways of persuading huge numbers of people claiming incapacity benefit that they would be better off working.
We must make difficult reforms to the benefits system, and in those circumstances it is utterly nauseating that politicians – and anyone benefiting from the public payroll – should think they can swank around in taxpayer-funded cars just because it used to be one of the perks of the job.
London has one of the best public transport systems in the world, and in so far as it needs improvement and investment, we need to get the political class down the Tube to understand what needs to be done. I want them straphanging and armpit-nuzzling all summer until they understand why we would be stark, staring bonkers to cut Crossrail or the Tube upgrades; and I am not just talking about ministers and people who have been entitled to use the absurd Government Car Service.
I am talking about the entire clerisy of officials, quangocrats and public functionaries of all kinds – tens of thousands of them in London alone – who still believe they are entitled to be picked up in the morning, and then taken home in the evening, and ferried to lunch or shopping in between, and all of them – from NHS hierarchs to the ruling elite of the National Trust, more or less subsidised by the poor bleeding taxpayer.
And I also mean those who don’t have a driver, but simply have taxpayer-funded allowances for the use of a car in central London. Those allowances must go. The Treasury should immediately announce that they are no longer acceptable across Whitehall or any other emanation of government, and it must be made plain that the taxpayer is no longer picking up anyone’s congestion charge. It’s not that I dislike cars. I love cars, and am a proud former motoring correspondent of GQ magazine.
I just don’t see why the taxpayer should be coughing up for state-sponsored cars, so that some people can feel superior about the way they get around. They don’t need it. They can write or think perfectly well on public transport, and if they really want to be on their own they can either get a taxi or, from the end of July, one of London’s amazing new hire bikes. In an act of outstanding generosity we have made the first half-hour free of charge, which is more than enough time to get from Westminster to Lancaster Gate, even for Keith Vaz.
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